Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Angelina Chapin

GET UPDATES FROM Angelina Chapin
 

When Big Brother Spies, Spy Right Back

Posted: 08/14/2013 8:23 am

I'm sure you've heard by now that there's no such thing as privacy.

The National Security Agency has been busy quietly collecting information ranging from how often Americans call their grandparents to the nasty emails they write about colleagues. And Canadians aren't exempt from Big Brother's watch. The NSA tracks phone calls made to other countries and much of our online info is stored on American servers. Our own government has similar surveillance powers -- we just haven't had a dramatic whistleblower.

We should all be very afraid. Or should we be?

Though it's tempting to feel like characters in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there's one important difference between the Orwellian world and our society: in 2013, the citizens spy too. Though the authorities may be watching us, we're staring right back at them through the lens of our cellphone cameras.

Welcome to citizen surveillance.

People such as Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and members of the hacktivist group Anonymous have set out to dramatically and deliberately prove that authority figures no longer have the last word. Because of Snowden's NSA whistle-blowing, Barack Obama recently announced reforms to government surveillance programs. Anonymous pressured police members to reopen the Rehtaeh Parsons case, and four months after her suicide two arrests have been made. And while they may be the poster people for watching the watchdog, most of us simply stumble into the citizen surveillance squad and still produce valuable results.

The thought of the government judging people based on personal emails and phone calls rightly feels disempowering, but cellphones have given citizens the unprecedented ability to judge authority back. The best example is police officers, whose actions are now publicly scrutinized as never before. The country was shocked to watch bystander footage of Toronto's 18-year-old Sammy Yatim being shot nine times by an officer. Yatim was standing in an evacuated street car holding only a knife. In July, a video filmed from a car window of two police officers beating a man on a Quebec reserve led to widespread outrage. Both incidents have helped reignite the debate about the police's use of excessive force that flared up in 2007 when a bystander recorded Robert Dziekanski dying after being tasered five times at the Vancouver airport. Without the amateur videos, the police would have surely downplayed these incidents, and the public would be hard-pressed to question their version of events.

We can rail against the state having no place in our bedrooms, or focus on how a cellphone and an Internet connection can turn anyone into a paparazzo -- handy for getting to know our politicians a little more intimately.

Citizen surveillance has provided some unflattering angles of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford -- most recently last Friday when he was captured slurring his words in multiple cellphone videos after having "a couple of beers" during a street festival. His defence might have been more believable if we had never seen the photo of Ford with former mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson -- eyes shut, shirt stained -- that accompanied her allegation that he grabbed her ass. Or read about his alleged starring role in a certain video.

While Ford has miraculously retained power, amateur footage can ruin political careers and campaigns. Remember that all-too-honest moment captured in a bartender's video of Mitt Romney referring to 47 per cent of the American population as freeloaders at a private fundraising dinner? Not even his wife Anne's divulgence that she and Mitt had once upon a time eaten tuna and pasta off an ironing board was able to save Romney from that unfortunate bit of political pillow talk.

It's not just the government that is spying on us either; we have to worry about Facebook and Google combing our private messages to decide whether to serve us an ad for cowboy boots or high heels. The data collection from corporations is disturbing, but the reality is that unethical corporate behaviour is now easier than ever to expose. When the Costa Concordia sank in 2012, a cruiser filmed a crew member's reckless announcement that passengers should return to their cabins (despite the fact that employees knew the severity of the damage and were putting people's lives in jeopardy) and broadcast it all over the web.

Five people were recently convicted of manslaughter in the case, and the many passenger videos were used to make a documentary re-creating the disaster minute-by-minute.

So far, citizen surveillance has been largely accidental: people pulling out their cellphones to record unexpected moments of horror. But what if instead of complaining about authorities spying on us, we made more concerted efforts to expose them? The people behind the Arab Spring successfully used technology en masse to subvert authoritarian regimes and the organizers of Occupy Wall Street used it to plan and broadcast a movement.

Our tools are only becoming more sophisticated: imagine the detail that will be captured once we're all wearing Google Glass. If the average person walked around with one eye cocked towards opportunities for citizen surveillance, imagine the database we could amasse.

Rather than fearing what the government knows about us, let's feel empowered knowing our pockets and purses contain the tools to broadcast what we know about them.

*This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.

Loading Slideshow...
  • This image from video released by NBC News/TODAY shows host Matt Lauer, right, speaking with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, left, as the mayor's brother, City Councilor Doug Ford, looks on during an interview in Toronto for the "Today" show. Mayor Ford said Toronto's City Council had no business stripping him of most of his powers over his admitted crack cocaine use and heaving drinking, implying in a television interview aired Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, that many councilors are no different from him.

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is shown in a video frame grab as he knocks down Councillor Pam McConnell as he ran toward hecklers in the audience at city Hall on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013.

  • Toronto Rob Ford, right, gestures to Councillor Paul Ainslee in the council chamber as councillors look to pass motions to limit his powers in Toronto on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. Blasting what he called a "coup d'etat," Ford said voters should be able to pass judgment on him, not his fellow councillors.

  • A giant-sized cutout of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford appears in the crowd as the Toronto Argonauts play against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during first half CFL eastern conference final football action in Toronto on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013.

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sits in the council chamber as councilors pass motions to limit his powers in Toronto on Friday November 15, 2013.

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford stands with his wife Renata at a news conference on Thursday November 14, 2013.

  • In this Nov. 14, 2013 file photo, Mayor Rob Ford reacts at city council members regarding new allegations against him in Toronto.

  • Hundreds of people protest against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford at city hall in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013.

  • A bobblehead doll in the likeness of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is displayed at city hall Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, in Toronto. Hundreds of people lined up to be the first to own the bobblehead doll. The defiant mayor declared on Monday, Nov. 11, that he intends to stay in office despite pressure to step aside after admitting he smoked crack cocaine.

  • A spectator holds a sign which reads, "ROB FORD. LABATT NOT CRACK" in the third period of an NHL hockey game between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs in Boston on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013.

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford makes a statement to the media outside his office at Toronto's city hall after the release of a video on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. The new video surfaced showing Ford in a rage, using threatening words including "kill" and "murder." Ford said he was “extremely, extremely inebriated" in the video, which appeared Thursday on the Toronto Star’s website. The context of the video is unknown and it's unclear who the target of Ford's wrath is.

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is seen in a video that surfaced Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. The video - posted by the Toronto Star and the Toronto Sun on their websites - shows Ford using threatening words, including “kill” and “murder.”

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford addresses the media at City Hall in Toronto, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. Ford acknowledged for the first time that he smoked crack "probably a year ago," when he was in a "drunken stupor," but he refused to resign despite immense pressure to step aside as leader of Canada’s largest city.

  • Toronto Police Service released documents Thursday morning, Oct. 31, 2013 that show police surveillance photos of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (left) and Alexander Lisi, Ford's friend and occasional driver.

  • City of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, right, pushes members of the media off his property as he leaves his home in Toronto on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013.

  • In this Oct. 31, 2013 file photo, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford tells to the media to get off his property as he leaves his home in Toronto. The embattled mayor on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 said he smoked crack "probably a year ago" during a "drunken stupor."

  • Mayor Rob Ford walks past Halloween decorations on his way to talk to media at City Hall in Toronto on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013. Ford says he has no reason to step down despite police confirmation that they have seized a video that appears to show him smoking a crack pipe.

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford addresses media outside his office in Toronto on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013. Ford says he has no reason to step down despite police confirmation that they have seized a video that appears to show him smoking a crack pipe.

  • City of Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair speaks to the media in Toronto on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, regarding a recovered video file involving City of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

  • In this Oct. 2, 2013 file photo, Alexander Lisi, friend and occasional driver of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, left, leaves Old City Hall court in Toronto after being granted bail on drug charges. Lisi, 35, has been charged with trafficking and possession of marijuana, Toronto police say. Rob Ford remains in office, resisting all attempts to force him out over his admitted crack use, drinking problem and appearance in a video that caught him threatening to "kill" someone. His powers were curtailed by the City Council on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013.

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford at a press conference at City Hall in response to possible provincial funding cuts to the city.

  • A police officer from Toronto Police Integrated Gun and Gang Task Force picks up an assault rifle as police display guns seized during a series of raids for operation "Project Traveller" at a news conference in Toronto on Friday, June 14, 2013. Police say a violent gang which was terrorizing a northwest Toronto neighborhood has been dismantled following a series of raids targeting suspected drug and gun traffickers. One of the raids targeted an apartment complex where an alleged video appearing to show Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine was reported to be located. Police haven't said if Ford was in any way part of their year-long investigation.

  • A protestor joins the crowd at Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto city hall calling for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to step down on Saturday, June 1, 2013.

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford answers questions about the three new staffers he has hired at a news conference at city hall in Toronto on Friday, May 31, 2013.

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford whistles as he walks to a meeting at city hall in Toronto on Thursday, May 30, 2013. More staffers are leaving the Toronto mayor's office as controversy swirls about a video that purportedly shows Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford attends an Executive Committee meeting at city hall in Toronto on Tuesday, May 28, 2013. This is Ford's first meeting with his executive committee since allegations of Ford's videotaped drug use surfaced earlier this month. Ford has denied the drug-use allegations, making a statement late last week after six members of his executive committee urged him to publicly address the allegations following a week of mostly silence on the issue. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford emerges from his office holding slices of a birthday cake to offer to members of the media at city hall in Toronto on Tuesday May 28, 2013. The mayor is celebrating his 44th birthday. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)

  • Mark Towhey, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's Chief of Staff, leaves city hall in Toronto, Thursday, May 23, 2013, after he was fired by Ford, who is caught up in a scandal over a video purportedly showing him smoking crack cocaine.

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sits during a City council meeting at Toronto City Hall on Tuesday May 21, 2013. Ford ignored a crush of reporters waiting outside his city hall office this morning in the hopes he would address allegations that he was recorded on video appearing to smoke crack cocaine. (AP Photo/THE CANADIAN PRESS,Nathan Denette)

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford arrives at City Hall in Toronto amid allegations of crack cocaine use on Friday May 17, 2013, in Toronto. Published reports say a video appears to show Ford smoking crack cocaine. Ford called the allegations ridiculous. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford leaves his home on Friday, May 17, 2013, after published reports said a video appears to show Ford smoking crack cocaine. A report published Thursday night said the video is being shopped around by a group of men allegedly involved in the drug trade. The Toronto Star said, however, it had no way to verify the video. Ford called the allegations ridiculous. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)

  • As city council debates whether or not the University of Toronto back campus field should have a heritage designation and be prevented from being converted to an artificial turf field for the Pan Am games, Rob Ford, Earl Provost and Doug Ford have an animated discussion on top of the Podium roof at City Hall. Ford is currently embroiled in a scandal after allegations surfaced that he was recorded on a cellphone video at this house smoking crack cocaine. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • As city council debates whether or not the University of Toronto back campus field should have a heritage designation and be prevented from being converted to an artificial turf field for the Pan Am games, Rob Ford, Earl Provost and Doug Ford have an animated discussion on top of the Podium roof at City Hall. Ford is currently embroiled in a scandal after allegations surfaced that he was recorded on a cellphone video at this house smoking crack cocaine. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Elena Johnson, 51, a resident at 15 Windsor Road, where Mayor Rob Ford was photographed with murder victim Anthony Smith and another shooting victim. The house is notorious for drug problems, according to people living in the area. Ford is currently embroiled in a scandal after allegations surfaced that he was recorded on a cellphone video at this house smoking crack cocaine. (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Reporters keep a watchful eye on the house which is all quiet.The house at 15 Windsor Road in Etobicoke where Mayor Rob Ford was allegedly photographed in relation to crack use is seen the morning after the Star published the address. June 6, 2013. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford tours the Dufferin Street bridge just south of Springhurst Avenue. The Mayor addressed the media about the closing of the bridge on June 12 due to safety concerns. It will be closed to traffic to allow for repairs. The bridge will still be open to pedestrians and cyclist. Ford is currently embroiled in a scandal after allegations surfaced that he was recorded on a cellphone video smoking crack cocaine and making offensive remarks (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • A man identified by friends and neighbours as Fabio Basso, a resident of 15 Windsor Road, in Etobicoke, the address where a photo showing Mayor Rob Ford with two shooting victims was taken. Ford is currently embroiled in a scandal after allegations surfaced that he was recorded on a cellphone video in front of this house smoking crack cocaine and making offensive remarks. (Toronto Star Archives/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • A woman identified by friends and neighbours as Elena Basso, a resident of 15 Windsor Road, in Etobicoke, the address where a photo showing Mayor Rob Ford with two shooting victims was taken. Ford is currently embroiled in a scandal after allegations surfaced that he was recorded on a cellphone video in front of this house smoking crack cocaine and making offensive remarks. (Toronto Star Archives/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford attends a Tim Horton's Camp Day fund raising event in Scarborough. Ford is currently embroiled in a scandal after allegations surfaced that he was recorded on a cellphone video smoking crack cocaine and making offensive remarks (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Exterior view of 15 Windsor Rd., the address where a photo showing Mayor Rob Ford with two shooting victims was taken. Ford is currently embroiled in a scandal after allegations surfaced that he was recorded on a cellphone video in front of this house smoking crack cocaine and making offensive remarks. (Toronto Star Archives/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford addresses the media on some positive developments in the TCHC. The Mayor would not answers questions on the crack cocaine video scandal at City Hall. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford addresses the media on some positive developments in the TCHC. The Mayor would not answers questions on the crack cocaine video scandal at City Hall. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Mayor Rob Ford leaves for the day shortly after reading a statement to the media concerning two more staffers that have left his office at City Hall. Brian Johnston, Ford's advisor on council relations, and executive assistant Kia Nejatian become the latest casualties of the Mayor Rob Ford crack video scandal at Toronto City Hall. Ford is currently facing allegations that he was recorded on a cellphone video smoking crack cocaine and making offensive remarks. Sources say Ford told senior aides not to worry about the video because he knew where it was. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford arrives at City Hall parking lot. Ford is currently facing allegations that he was recorded on a cellphone video smoking crack cocaine and making offensive remarks. Sources say Ford told senior aides not to worry about the video because he knew where it was. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Mayor Rob Ford during the executive committe meeting at City Hall in Toronto on May 28, 2013 (Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Rob Ford scrum re staff defections. (Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • =

    Doug Ford leaves CFRB after his weekly radio show with brother Mayor Rob Ford. Mayor Rob Ford recently addressed a crack cocaine video scandal and denied using the drug. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Mayor Rob Ford leaves his home for the storm at City Hall amid a crack cocaine scandal that he continues to refuse to address. Ford's hand-picked executive committee may release an extraordinary statement urging Ford to finally address eight-day-old media reports on a video that appears to show him smoking crack. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Rob Ford waits for the end in his Cadillac SUV across street from the funeral of the renowned journalist Peter Worthington, the founding editor of the Toronto Sun. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Mayor Rob Ford in the council chamber for a special council meeting on the Casino debate in Toronto. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford watches as the motion he put forward and others he supported are voted down during the casino debate at Toronto City Hall, he faces allegations that there is a video which he reportedly appears to be smoking crack cocaine. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

 

Follow Angelina Chapin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/angelinachapin

FOLLOW CANADA POLITICS